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A History Lover's Guide to Ancient Myra

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Updated: December 13, 2019

Magnificent Myra - or Is It?

Located in the sleepy, modern day town of Demre, Turkey, Myra was once one of the largest and most important cities of the Lycian Union. While there is no written mention of the town before the 1st century BC, it must have been established for quite some time to achieve that ranking.

But little remains of the ancient metropolis. Why aren't there more finds for a city of this significance?

Most archaeologists agree that the majority of the city is still buried under 6 meters (18 feet!) of alluvial silt deposited by the Myros River.

What Do We Actually Know About Myra?

  • It was founded on a fertile alluvial plain, so agriculture was likely an important industry in the area. (Today, Demre is known for its production of tomatoes and cucumbers.)
  • Myra was mentioned in the New Testament because St. Paul changed boats in the city's Andriake harbour on his way to trial in Rome around 60 AD.
  • St. Nicholas was a bishop in the local church early in the 3rd century. He destroyed many of the city's beautiful temples, including a great temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis Eleuthera (the ancient mother goddess of Anatolia) in an effort to eliminate paganism in the population.
  • The city was home to the largest theatre in Lycia. With 38 rows of seating, the massive Greco-Roman theatre could accommodate 12,000 people. Unfortunately, the original theatre was destroyed by an earthquake 141 AD but was subsequently rebuilt by wealthy members of the community.
  • The vertical cliff faces around the theatre contain dozens of intricately carved rock tombs which once housed the remains of Myra's most prominent citizenry. The Lycians believed that the deceased should feel at home in their final resting places, so these tombs were painted in bright hues of red, blue, yellow. The paint has faded over time, but the tombs are eye-catching none the less. Dating from the 4th century BC, most are decorated with carved funeral scenes, or scenes depicting the daily life of the deceased.
  • A terrible plague killed off a third of Myra's population in 542 to 543 AD. Raids on the city, flooding, and earthquakes also took their toll, and the once-prosperous city was mostly abandoned by the 11th century.

Nowadays, Demre is not much more than a quaint Turkish village, housing bountiful, wall-to-wall greenhouses and a museum honouring St. Nicholas. But we know that the secrets of days gone by in ancient Myra are hidden just below the surface.

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Have you had the chance to visit the ruins of ancient Myra? We'd love to hear about your experience and see your photos.